Terrorism: The Memetics of Guerilla Warfare

Since beginning this blog together, Stan and I have continued a running discussion on what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of military siege or action. To isolate a single specific cogent meaning that fits every popular usage would likely be impossible. Stan at one point suspected the major difference in usage stemmed from the weapon used. We went through a pile of different definitions and I at least don’t feel any closer to a single word I could graft over the entirety of usages or even a three or four entry definition that could cover most usages.

The coordinated attacks on Paris last week add another wrinkle to this and give me the sense that the defining element of the phenomena hinted toward in the increased cultural fixation on the word in the last 15-20 years has been defined more frequently by the narrative implied by the target than the manner or strategy of attack. What’s called “peacekeeping” or “intervention” tends toward the striking of strategic targets, while what’s labeled “terrorism” tends toward symbolic targets. There is little traditional military strategic value in the Bataclan Theater, and it seems difficult to think the attackers, whoever they were, wanted to or thought they could take over Paris or France as a whole through a couple coordinated strikes. Formal seizure of territory is no longer a common goal of military actions. Satellite power and puppet governments make more sense than taking over the actual governance and ownership of a territory. Why buy the cow etc.

The idea of France being under fundamentalist religious law for any sustained period of time seems similarly ridiculous, at least with the current population, even if the military power of ISIS were expanded to the point of being comparable to the major UN powers. The cultural differences are too great and especially now as ISIS doesn’t have military power anywhere even remotely comparable to the UN powers. The significant aftershock of a large attack like the one in France or even smaller ones therefore would be pitched in two directions, mirror images of the same morale problem.

What is the tactical effect the terrorist desires from the terrorist act? It’s not seizure of territory clearly. It can’t be the actual installation of religious fundamentalism in the territory struck. There are only two actual end gains I can think of from the perspective of the terrorist organization.

The first is the more obvious. Every press release or statement by a terrorist organization “claiming” an attack has two broad points which are stated each time. The first statement is “This is in retaliation for (insert western military intervention),” the (relatively) logical strategic impetus toward attack then the second “…and because of Western  decadence (many roughly equivalent phrasings exist.)” This first reason stated, the one that anything could be done about, is categorically ignored by the attacked state  and the corresponding government, at least in the US. reliably since the beginning of the W. regime. The first reason isn’t stated as a communication to  peoples attacked but as a recruitment megaphone; by aligning themselves with the counter-cultural capital inherent in broad civilian misgiving in the middle east (or in immigrant populations elsewhere), ISIS or similar organizations legitimize themselves with domestic populations. The elements in propaganda intended to be broadcast to the people inside an organization/country are usually quite different from the ones intended to be focused on from without. In an internationally broadcast message, the elements meant to draw the eyes of the foreign and domestic populations need to be pitched in ways where the likeliness of hearing one decreases the likeliness of hearing the other.

The second reason, “western decadence” is pitched at the attacked population. It’s intentionally far more vague, as vagaries make for more dynamic political capital after the fact. The western decadence is pitched in the most broad terms possible to incense the widest range of people. Paranoias of vagueness run on the fuel of victims’ collective energies to imagine the worst; paranoias of the specific have no such engine to propagate themselves. Specifics isolate, vagueness spreads. A wide net.

The aesthetic progression of terrorism from the 1970s to the present has centered around the creation of a symbolic malignant other in the form of the terrorist, a branding campaign supported equally by the terrorist and the governments of the terrorized territory. The terroristic/international memetic guerrilla militia meanwhile attempts to move toward a less coherent display of violence to weaken the sense of control in the attacked population. The shared antagonism between the two groups needs to be legitimated by continued violent flare-ups in order to sustain its strategic benefits as a means of molding public opinion. If you have a territory with multiple non-state actors vying for power that aren’t larger enough to control the entirety of the state, foreign invasion by a power like the US can be advantageous to a specific faction in their organization against the others even if the supposed endgame of taking on the US isn’t intended seriously. The mutual antagonisms so convenient for both sides in propping up national identities during the Cold War are extended into a changed paradigm. In the manner of a reality contest show, different antagonists within a limited spectrum are rolled out before the public to be judged as a sufficiently stirring dramatic foil.

By mobilizing as a relatively amorphous idea, waging “memetic warfare” as Howard Bloom might call it, the terrorist movement gains the decided advantage of being able to harness the publics’ incredible capacity for self-centered misreading in both directions. Terrorism works on the principle that if a thing manages to not effectively or coherently be about anything, the outside observers will consider it to be directly bearing them in some correlative measure. The insults against “western living” are meant, of course, as taunts. To try to isolate specific tangible targets we could call strongholds of “western living” would yield about as much stuff of use as looking at a person’s actual mother to understand a “your mom” joke. In asymmetrical warfare that isn’t centered on a traditional linear notion of victory, engagement inherently favors the smaller entity.

The US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the wake of 9/11 were not, as they were initially pitched to the public and discussed in mainstream venues at the time of the initial strikes and for a while afterward, wars of ideas or based around the adoption by one side or the other of a national or religious identity. The wars themselves were a way of creating oppositional identity to cover for a lack of shared identity that likely sits at the center of the US and in the disaffect that drives people to join ISIS. In a time of widespread discontent the most valuable branding a thing can have is an image of not being the other thing.



  1. Dan Carlin ran an interesting piece recently where he argues, “If this were a boxing match… this is a jab. They are stinging you with a jab, and it makes you mad so you want to lash out. Which is great – if you can hit them… But if you can’t hit them… if they are Muhammad Ali and you are George Foreman and you can’t hit them and they hit you with a jab and you waste precious energy trying to do something you can’t do… well that’s a tactic. And they do that over and over again and you sting again and again and again… if you don’t respond to the jab, yeah, you might lose the fight… that’s not victory either.”

    The history of terrorism has shown that it is a tactic – one enjoyed only from certain strategic positions. That is to say symbolic targets, because of the fallout and the method, are strategic targets. Indeed, symbolic targets have been strategic targets for conventional militaries for as long as there has been conventional war.

    There is no solution to terrorism. Either the garuntees of security that the feudal structure/class make to their clients are challenged because the people are overrun with terror or because the feudal structure/class remove elements of security from their ‘social contract’ in order to stop the violence. Furthermore it is often the case that even successfully stopping an attack, but where combatants are killed on either side, is seen as a serious challenge to the prevailing power’s legitimacy because in the minds of a population not only should the power be able to uphold the security contract, it should also be able to do so without killing; the death of combatants is seen as the power’s responsibility – in many ways it is.

    Terrorist attacks are an effective strategy because there are very few effective replies and any attack, even if it is not fully successful, still undermines the legitimacy of the prevailing power.

    Dipping into the DoD’s field manual on counter insurgency (3-24) we read:

    “1-27. Legitimacy, the acceptance of an authority by a society, and control are the central issues in insurgencies and counterinsurgencie”

    “1-31. The struggle for legitimacy with the population is typically a central issue of an insurgency. The insurgency will attack the legitimacy of the host-nation government while attempting to develop its own credibility with the population. The host-nation government should reduce the credibility of the insurgency while strengthening its own legitimacy. A government that is seen as legitimate magnifies the resources and capabilities needed to defeat an insurgency and allows the host nation to concentrate finite resources on targeting the insurgency. However, legitimacy is a condition perceived by the population. Who the population sees as legitimate will be determined by that population’s norms and values. For example, if a population does not see outside forces as legitimate, this can undermine the legitimacy of the host-nation government trying to counter an insurgency. ”


    Or to the al Qaeda field manual ‘Management of Savagery’ (rough translation of ‘governance’):

    “Additionally, note that the economic weakness resulting from the burdens of war or from aiming blows of vexation (al-nikya) directly toward the economy is the most important element of cultural annihilation since it threatens the opulence and (worldly) pleasures which those societies thirst for. Then competition for these things begins after they grow scarce due to the weakness of the economy.”

    “A –– The first goal: Destroy a large part of the respect for America and spread confidence in the souls of Muslims by means of: ”

    “(1) Reveal the deceptive media to be a power without force. ”

    “(2) Force America to abandon its war against Islam by proxy and force it to attack directly so that the noble ones among the masses and a few of the noble ones among the armies of apostasy will see that their fear of deposing the regimes because America is their protector is misplaced and that when they depose the regimes, they are capable of opposing America if it interferes. ”

    “B –– The second goal: Replace the human casualties sustained by the renewal movement during the past thirty years by means of the human aid that will probably come for two reasons: ”

    “(1) Being dazzled by the operations which will be undertaken in opposition to America. ”

    “(2) Anger over the obvious, direct American interference in the Islamic world, such that that anger compounds the previous anger against America’s support for the Zionist entity. It also transforms the suppressed anger toward the regimes of apostasy and tyranny into a positive anger. Human aid for the renewal movement will not dry up, especially when heedless people among the masses –– and they are the majority –– discover the truth of the collaboration of these regimes with the enemies of the Umma to such an extent that no deceptive veil will be of use and no pretext will remain for any claimant to the Islam of these regimes and their like.”

    “(C) –– The third goal: Work to expose the weakness of America’’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly. As a result, the apostates among all of the sects and groups and even Americans themselves will see that the remoteness of the primary center from the peripheries is a major factor contributing to the possible outbreak of chaos and savagery.”

    This is later summed up:

    “The primary goals for the stage of the ‘power of vexation and exhaustion’:”

    “1 – Exhausting the forces of the enemy and the regimes collaborating with them, dispersing their efforts, and working to make them unable to catch their breath by means of operations in the regions of the choice states, primary or otherwise, even if the operations are small in size or effect. Although the blow of the rod may only strike a (single) Crusader head, its spread and escalation will have an effect for a long period of time. ”

    “2 – Attracting new youth to the jihadi work by undertaking qualitative operations [`amaliyyat naw`iyya] – when it is appropriate with respect to timing and ability – that will grab peoples’ attention.”

    “3 – Dislodging the chosen regions – regions in which it was decided to have focused movement, whether in all of the priority regions or in some of them – from the control of the regimes and then working toward the administration of savagery which will transpire in it. Note here that we said that the goal is to dislodge these regions from the control of the regimes of apostasy. It is the goal we are publicly proclaiming and which we are determined to carry out, not the outbreak of chaos. ”

    “4 – The fourth goal of the stage of “the power of vexation and exhaustion” is the advancement of groups of vexation through drilling and operational practice so that they will be prepared psychologically and practically for the stage of the management of savagery. ”

    – translation provided by John M. Olin at the Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University

    It’s interesting to note that the field manual starts with an preface essay that could have been a post on this blog, describing neo-colonial order:

    “The Order that has Governed the World Since the Sykes-Picot Era Contemplating the previous centuries, even until the middle of the twentieth century, one finds that when the large states or empires collapsed – and even small states, whether they were Islamic or non-Islamic – and a state did not come into being that was comparable in power and equivalent to the previous state with regard to control over the lands and regions of that state which had collapsed, the regions and sectors of this state changed, through human nature, on account of submission to what is called the administrations of savagery.”

    “When the caliphal state fell, some of this savagery appeared in some of the regions. However, the situation stabilized soon after that on account of (the order) the Sikes-Picot treaty established. Thereupon, the division of the caliphal state and the withdrawal of the colonial states was such that the caliphal state was divided into (large) states and small states, ruled by military governments or civil governments supported by military forces. The ability of these governments to continue administering these states was consonant with the strength of their connection with these military forces and the ability of these forces to protect the form of the state, whether through the power which these forces derived from their police or army, or through the external power which supported them.”

    “Here we will not deal with how these states were maintained or how these governments
    exercised control. Regardless of whether we believe that they obtained control by virtue of their victory over the governments of colonialsm, or by virtue of working secretly with colonial rule and being assigned its place when it withdrew, or a mixture of the two, these states, in short, fell into the hands of these governments because of one or both of these reasons.”

    The same marine corps publication cited earlier notes that it counter-insurgency operations are usually the most effective if joint action can be taken by the superpower and the regional nation’s government. But in the case of ISIS the US led coalition specifically provoked extremism in Syria in order to oust Assad for the broader geostrategic chess board – and other regional powers, while they have more legitimacy among locals than Saudi Arabia and Turkey do, neither are seen as legitimate. Russia wants to work with the Assad regime to counter the insurgency. We’ll see what the superpowers and regional clients decide for Syria after they finish deliberations.

    There’s another way to look at the categorization of terrorism. That’s to examine how it is used. The official definition used by the US is “violence used by a non-state actor to achieve political objectives.” But since it doesn’t use the term in accordance with this definition, since it sponsors and approves some non-state actor use of violence to achieve political ends, and since the US has accused states such as Cuba of sponsorship of terrorism in absurd defiance of reality, we should tack a qualifier onto it so that it becomes “violence used by an illegitimate non-state actor to achieve political objectives, or any action taken by an unrecognised force for the purposes of undermining recognised legitimacy”. Indeed this second definition is consistent with the individual use of the term by states (like Russia) who each disagree with the US about what groups are terrorists – as exemplified by the proxy war in Ukraine and different opinions about the forces in the proxy war in Syria – but do use the term to mean the same overall phenomenon.

  2. Can’t/won’t/don’t want to comment on the thoughts here except to say that the image caption, the black mirror, couldn’t be more symbolically true. Sure wish we were having way more dialogue with Middle Eastern peoples than just ourselves.

    1. I wish so too. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. ashimbabbar · · Reply

    What has been said here as to guerrilla strikes me as cogent, but I feel it forgets one of the distinctive objectives of the guerrilla war waged by ISIS.

    By targeting countries with a relatively numerous muslim population ( France, Belgium ), they wish to recruit in that population
    – attracting the usual idiots who want to the 72 virgins.
    – more importantly, having both authorities putting the screws on the local Muslims and vigilantes etc attacking them, creating a nationwide state of mind in which every muslim is at least a potential enemy. The idea is, the more persecuted the local muslims will be and feel, the more recruits for ISIS. And the thing goes on with positive feedback.

    In short, they’re trying to provoke a polarization on a ‘Shock of Civiliizations’ narrative, or at any rate Us against Them.

    Come to think of it, it’s actually an old trick: the Vietnamians and the Algerians played it, and the XIXth century Anarchists tried it – the more repression falls on the proletariat the nearer the Revolution is – albeit with strikingly little success. But whereas this tactic was understandable in a war of liberation, it is quite disquieting in an enterprise of aggression…

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